What’s up and what’s down at the Toronto International Film Festival

Knives Out, Joker, Jojo Rabbit, The Goldfinch and The Report among the contenders

The Toronto International Film Festival (sometimes Tiff) is not like its rivals in Cannes or Venice. Taking place within the fourth-largest city in North America, it doesn't boss the metropolis in quite the same way. Not everybody is talking about how the coming awards season is shaping up. It just seems that way when you're bouncing from venue to venue on King Street. What's up? What's down? Where is consensus settling?

No neat summary is easy in such a busy event, but let's attempt to put some kind of order on things. The Irish Times was among the many who went for Rian Johnson's Knives Out. A groaning cast of stars – from Toni Collette to Jamie Lee Curtis to Christopher Plummer – gather for a comic murder mystery in a creaky country house. A decade before Johnson made Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he broke through with a sideways look at noir in Brick. Knives Out does something on a larger scale for the work of Agatha Christie. It's not exactly subtle, but the generous blend of celebration and pastiche bowled over the audience at the suitably old-school Elgin Theatre. It could well beat Todd Phillips's Joker – getting a second outing after winning Venice – to the People's Choice Award on Sunday.

There were similarly loud hurrahs for Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit on Sunday night, but the critics have been curiously divided. The New Zealander directs Roman Griffin Davis as a young German who, in the last months of the war, interrogates his own prejudice while bickering with his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi). You read that right. Jojo Rabbit maintains a unique tone that allows in some sentimentality, but never slips into the inappropriate maudlin of Life Is Beautiful. It's a funny, wise film that will generate debate wherever it plays. One wonders how Disney, which recently bought Fox Searchlight, the film's creators, will handle such a controversial title.

Cheering up a miserable journalist

Some "Oscar bait" delivered. Some did not. Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and John Crowley's The Goldfinch certainly met that designation. Heller's film sounded a little too sweet to be true. Tom Hanks plays the US children's entertainer Fred "Mr" Rogers as he cheers up a miserable journalist (Matthew Rhys) from Esquire. Heller, who did such good work on Can You Ever Forgive Me?, has, however, made something much more interesting than the scenario suggests: awkward, peculiar, eccentrically mounted. Expect Hanks, in a supporting role, to commit category fraud with a best actor nomination.

Some very good actors struggle with a film whose key mission seems to be satisfying anxious readers

The Goldfinch, adapted from Donna Tartt's popular, bullet-stopping novel, has, on the surface, all the trappings of an awards-friendly release. Telling the story of a young man's relationship with the eponymous painting, the film revels in the lush textures you expect from a film shot by Roger Deakins. But Peter Straughan's script sticks too closely to a novel that became more disordered with every page. Some very good actors – Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson – struggle with a film whose key mission seems to be satisfying anxious readers. Few awards juries will nibble this bait.

A more viable contender for gongs is the film that we will call Le Mans '66 and North Americans will (bizarrely) know as Ford v Ferrari. The brace of titles should clarify that James Mangold's picture concerns the efforts of the Ford motor company to win the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1966. Featuring Christian Bale as English driver Ken Miles and Matt Damon as automotive designer Carroll Shelby, the picture kicks up some overly familiar conflicts: our boys rebel against the stuffed shirts in head office. None of this impedes the movie's thrusting momentum and raucous, fumy energy. It works – even if (as many will) you really want the sexier Ferrari to triumph.

No issue with Netflix

Toronto has none of Cannes's issues with Netflix. Having spent a fortune promoting Roma last year – with Martin Scorsese's The Irishman just down the road – the streaming giant was back at Tiff with hopefuls that Irish viewers may or may not get to see in cinemas. Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are terrific as respectively Pope Francis and Pope Benedict in Fernando Meirelles's surprisingly funny The Two Popes. The Welshmen have enormous fun contrasting the characters – Benedict is uptight and unyielding; Francis is lighthearted and flexible – in a film that makes a virtue of its talkiness. Will delight both the faithful and unbelievers.

The sadness is leavened by very good jokes. Laura Dern knocks it out of the park as Johansson's ruthless lawyer

Also from Netflix we saw the latest film from Noah Baumbach. The director of Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale hits his best form with a drama about a long, nasty divorce between a theatre director and a rising actress. The film attempts to strike an equal balance between Adam Driver's New Yorker and Scarlett Johansson's LA hopeful, but it somehow remains marginally on the former's side. No matter. Marriage Story remains a searing dissection of the forced conflict in American divorce settlements. The sadness is constantly leavened by very good jokes. Laura Dern knocks it out of the park as Johansson's ruthless lawyer.

Netflix's rivals over at Amazon Prime brought Scott Z Burns's The Report to Tiff after a successful premiere at Sundance seven months ago. Adam Driver is back as the US senate staffer who – against great resistance – worked hard to reveal the truth about CIA torture after 9/11. Burns's script makes no allowances to those only peripherally interested in the subject. The acronym stew is swimming with facts and analysis. There are, however, many who will take to the brooding menace and who will savour Annette Bening's performance as senator Dianne Feinstein.

Less successful was Michael Winterbottom's satirical shot at the barn door behind which hide the super-rich. By titling the film Greed, he makes no effort to conceal the broadness of his approach. Steve Coogan plays a corrupt clothing magnate arranging a vulgar 60th birthday on a Greek island that is also hosting a number of refugees (another clunk there). Few civilised people will object to the target of Winterbottom's satire. But there are just not enough surprises on the way to an inevitable encounter with a Chekhovian weapon (of sorts) that hangs over the metaphorical fireplace early on.

Odd luminous beast

There was significant domestic interest at Tiff 2019. Neasa Hardiman, one of our most experienced TV directors, has moved on to the big screen with a convincing maritime horror entitled Sea Fever. Hermione Corfield plays a biologist who – despite "unlucky" red hair – is welcomed on a trawler that encounters and odd luminous beast. The film wears its influences heavily, but finds a few new ecological variations on tunes played previously in Alien and The Thing.

To take it all in would be like watering the peonies with a firehose. It's a rush that can't be controlled

Also travelling across the Atlantic was Shelly Love's lovely A Bump Along the Way. Bronagh Gallagher is typically warm as a middle-aged woman surprised to find herself pregnant by a much younger man. Already a success at the Galway Film Fleadh, the picture was a subject of much excited chatter among those reviewers prepared to paddle away from the mainstream.

Pat Collins, one of Ireland's greatest documentarians, is at his most sedate in Henry Glassie: Field Work. A study of the eponymous American folklorist, the film begins with shots of artists from around the world constructing beautiful items from wood, metal and paper. It's soothing in the manner of that potter's wheel they played on early television, but where is the subject under discussion? Glassie eventually turns up and walks us through fascinating theories on the importance of art in all kinds of societies.

Glassie seeks to “understand people in terms of their excellence”. This seems like reasonable advice for making sense of the wealth on display at a festival as busy as Tiff. To take it all in would be like watering the peonies with a firehose. It’s a rush that can’t be controlled. It is, perhaps, for that reason that so much conversation  gets reduced to awards prognostication.

Oh, well. We can’t pretend that’s not on our minds too. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is up. The Goldfinch is down. Knives Out may be a little light to convert its good word by the lake. Driver will be nominated for either The Report or Marriage Story (probably the latter). Will this do?

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